Analysis |

Russia’s New Federal Plan Will Allow It to Divide and Rule Syria

While Moscow imagines a Swiss-style canton arrangement, there are countless holes emerging in the cease-fire between the Assad regime and rebel forces.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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People attend a protest rally against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russia, in the Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood of Aleppo, February 29, 2016.
People attend a protest rally against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russia, in the Tariq al-Bab neighbourhood of Aleppo, February 29, 2016.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov dropped a diplomatic bombshell this week when he said that if Syria decides that a federal model “will work to serve the task of preserving [it] as a united, secular, independent and sovereign nation, then who will object to this? I hope the parties participating in the negotiations will consider the federation idea.”

Suddenly, everyone was talking about the “new Russian idea”: Dividing Syria into Swiss-style cantons – i.e., creating a federal government with autonomous provinces – as a possible solution to the Syrian crisis. The prevailing assessment, which has yet to be denied, is that the U.S. government, having no other plan of action up its sleeve, won’t oppose the idea. That’s despite the Americans previously favoring the creation of a new Syrian government to rule a united Syria, just as was done in Iraq.

The practical implications of the Russian proposal, should it come to fruition, is that not only would the Syrian Kurds be able to retain control of the autonomous zone they have declared, but the Alawites would also have a province of their own. This would probably be Latakia District, which is also where Russia’s naval bases and most of its air bases are located. It’s possible that Daraa District, in the south, might also gain autonomy.

The advantage of this plan, according to its Syrian supporters, is that President Bashar Assad’s authority would be limited to foreign policy and defending the country from external enemies. On the flip side, the opposition’s fear – as voiced by George Sabra, one of its senior spokesmen – is that “Russia’s goals align with those of Syria’s enemies, from Israel to Tehran.”

According to Sabra, Russia would be able to perpetuate its presence in Syria semi-officially, while Iran would be able to continue dictating the country’s political moves via Assad. This fear isn’t far-fetched. But how would this change the situation in Syria from what it was before the civil war?

Naturally, the Syrian Kurds back the proposal. (They’re currently enjoying respite from assaults by the Syrian army, since they are apparently working with the regime.) This week, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) managed to gain control of one of the most important roads connecting the besieged city of Aleppo and Idlib, which is under rebel control. As a result, the Kurds have completed the Syrian army’s encirclement of Aleppo.

Their capture of the road not only helps the Syrian army, but also gives the Kurds a territorial link between their zone of control along the Turkish border and central Syria. Turkey views this development as a real threat to its own strategy, which seeks to prevent the Kurds from gaining control of the entire Turkish-Syrian border. The Turks’ goal is to prevent the Kurds from creating a contiguous territorial expanse that would form the basis for a Kurdish autonomous zone similar to Iraqi Kurdistan.

Now, Turkey finds itself in a war on three fronts. Its primary target is the Kurds, but an equally important target is the increasingly close relationship between Washington and the Kurds. The latter receive financial and diplomatic aid from the United States, due to Washington’s hope that they will become the main fighting force against the Islamic State group in Syria – and especially in the battle to oust ISIS from its de facto capital in Raqqa.

A boy waits to fill water containers while residents wait in line in Bab Neirab, Aleppo, February 2016. The situation has deteriorated futher in recent weeks.Credit: Reuters

The third front is against Russia. Turkey’s relationship with Moscow deteriorated to an unprecedented nadir after it downed a Russian fighter jet allegedly over Turkish airspace last November. Ankara is convinced the Russian idea of establishing a federation in Syria is meant to undermine Turkey’s strategic interests, sabotage its battle against Kurdish terrorist organizations and minimize its influence over diplomatic efforts to solve the Syrian crisis.

But, for now at least, the federal idea remains a theoretical construct. If it is to become reality, two disparate groups must agree: the rebel militias and Assad, who is in no hurry to abandon his wish to control the entire country even after a transitional government is established.

Cease-fire violations

Meanwhile, reports of cease-fire violations by both the regime and rebels are piling up. It’s not yet clear when or if these violations will reach a critical mass that forces the parties to decide whether there’s any point continuing the cease-fire or whether they should resume full-scale fighting – as the rebels have already threatened to do if the shooting at their forces continues.

Russia and the United States are coordinating oversight of the cease-fire between themselves. This week, they exchanged maps marked with the areas controlled by the “legal militias” versus those controlled by Islamic State and the Nusra Front; in the latter areas, the fighting is allowed to continue. There is also a U.S. hotline to which rebel organizations can report cease-fire violations. However, there hasn’t been anyone available to take such calls in recent days, due to a shortage of Arabic speakers.

One country that has been very active monitoring the violations is France. At its insistence, representatives of all the countries involved in the Syrian negotiations met in Geneva last Monday to examine the opposition’s complaints about truce violations.

This activism is also linked with the growing diplomatic closeness between France and Saudi Arabia – two countries that are both suspicious of Russia’s real goals in Syria. Riyadh believes Syria is liable to end up under Russian-Iranian control, which would deprive the Saudis of any influence not just in Syria but also Lebanon.

France also has an important ancillary interest in its ties with Saudi Arabia: It aspires to play the role of life support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Syrian boys carrying boxes of biscuits through war-torn Aleppo, March 3, 2016. Credit: Reuters

Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef, who also serves as interior minister, was due to meet French President François Hollande on Friday to discuss the possibility of the Saudis supporting France’s peace initiative. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is set to meet with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi later in the week about joining the French initiative, which aims to convene a peace conference in April between Israeli and Palestinian representatives.

Israel opposes the initiative, while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has welcomed it. Hamas reiterated its opposition to the initiative on Thursday, since it involves diplomatic dialogue with Israel. It is unclear what will come of it, but Egypt needs Saudi support for it to go anywhere – and that does not come without a price.

Saudi Arabia expects French cooperation on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts, and to support its position against diplomatic moves by Russia and Iran. This political thread connecting France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria makes it clear how much Israel cannot be indifferent not only to military moves in Syria, but also to political movements that forge alliances between interested parties in Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process.

These processes are currently of no concern to the residents of Aleppo and its environs, which is subject to a harsh siege by the Syrian army. Reports arriving from the city tell of a dire lack of drinking water, power outages and lack of life-saving medicines. Residents are forced to buy mineral water at exorbitant prices, while they boil polluted groundwater for washing and domestic use.

One of the new jobs created in Aleppo is the “line guard”: Young people receive a few Syrian lira to save a place in long lines that stretch behind water tanks that arrive at irregular times. Without water flowing into Aleppo, and if Syrian forces continue to prevent the entry of humanitarian supplies like food and medicine into the city, the rebel militias are liable to undercut the effort to continue the diplomatic process – because lifting the siege is one of the conditions for their agreeing to negotiate.

Another meeting to discuss maintaining the process is set for Wednesday in Geneva. The question is how much water will flow through Aleppo’s pipes before then.

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